Judge Tells Private Prison Corporation It's A Government Agency As Far As Public Information Requests Are Concerned
from the another-obvious-conclusion-that-took-a-lawsuit-to-reach dept
Prison Legal News has been battling with the largest private prison corporation in the US, Corrections Corporation of America, over the control of records requested through a Texas Public Information Act request. The organization took CCA to court last May in hopes of kicking loose records pertaining to a now-closed prison.
Fortunately, almost a year later, a Texas judge has ordered the corporation to release the pertinent records.
A state judge ruled Wednesday that the nation’s largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, is a “governmental body” for purposes of the Texas Public Information Act, “and subject to [the] Act’s obligations to disclose public information.”
The corporation had argued that it was exempt from public information requests because it was not a government agency. As Prison Legal News noted in its May 2013 filing for summary judgement, this distinction was meaningless on several levels. It pointed to the Fifth Circuit Court’s “Kneeland test,” a list of three specifications that, if met, would redefine a private corporation as a public entity due to the extent of its interaction and reliance on government bodies.
An entity that receives public funds is treated as a governmental body under the PIA:
1. unless the private entity’s relationship with the government imposes a specific and definite obligation to provide a measurable amount of service in exchange for a certain amount of money as would be expected in a typical arms-length contract for services between a vendor and purchaser;
2. if the private entity’s relationship with the government indicates a common purpose or objective or creates an agency-type relationship between the two; or
3. if the private entity’s relationship with the government requires the private entity to provide services traditionally provided by governmental bodies.
As the filing noted, CCA met all three requirements. The corporation receives public funds to run its prisons, receiving a certain amount of money per prisoner housed. It is also instructed to maintain critical systems, etc. at all times, despite a fluctuating inmate count, for which it also receives public funding.
Quite obviously, Texas and CCA are also reliant on each other (“agency-type relationship”) in other ways. The state prosecutes criminals and needs somewhere to house them, which CCA provides. This also satisfies the third stipulation, that being that CCA provides a service normally provided by the government.
In a one-page ruling, the judge granted summary judgement, ordering the company to hand over records to Prison Legal News. This is one small victory against the increasingly privately-owned prison system in the US. By turning over imprisonment to private corporations, the US government has both perverted incentives (by making imprisonment a profitable enterprise) and allowed public records to be hidden away behind FOI exemptions meant to shield private companies’ trade secrets from their competitors.